During much of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of
Irish and Blacks were present, they were pushed into competition.
There are striking parallels in the culture and history of the
two groups. They began their life in America with low social and
economic status. Over time, they advanced in common fields such
as sports, entertainment, religion, writing and publishing, and
politics. They even had similar social pathologiesalcoholism,
violence and broken homes. Rather than being united by their common
hard life, they were divided by the need to compete. For political
benefit, this pattern was reinforced as Blacks were drawn to the
Republican Party while the Irish strength in numbers was wooed
by the Democratic Party.
Both the Irish and Blacks had reason to feel they were treated
unfairly in the workforce, and often at one another's expense.
In the antebellum South, for instance, where slaveholders viewed
slaves as valuable property, Blacks were prohibited from participating
in hazardous, life-threatening work. Thus, many of the most dangerous
jobs were left to the Irish who did not have such protection (or
limitation). Thousands of Irish lives were lost in the building
of the nation's canal and railroad systems.
The Conscription Act of 1863 exacerbated tense relationships.
This act made all white men between the ages of twenty and forty-five
years eligible for the draft by the Union Army. Free black men
were permitted to "volunteer" to fight in the Civil
War through the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation.
However, Blacks were not drafted or otherwise forced to fight.
In addition, white men with money could illegally bribe doctors
for medical exemptions, legally hire a substitute, or pay for
a commutation of a draft. Lower-class workers could not afford
to pay for deferments. The inequities in draft eligibility between
blacks, monied whites, and lower-class whites (many of whom
were Irish), inevitably increased racial tensions.
Several cities suffered draft riots in which enrollment officers
and free blacks were targeted for violence. The largest such
incident began on June 11, 1863, in New York City when more
than 100 people were murdered by an angry mob. After burning
down a draft office and attacking police officers and well-dressed
whites, this mob of lower-class whites (including many Irish)
focused its energy on killing black bystanders. The
Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored
People . . . documents some of the acts perpetrated by the
mob in the section, Incidents of the Riot.